Low Impact Cardio for Bad Knees

Knee Injury
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If you have bad knees, it can feel difficult to get adequate exercise and cardio throughout the day or week. However, as regular exercise is an important component of a healthy lifestyle, it is important to find activities to do that have a low impact on your knees.

One great option for exercise when dealing with painful or sore knees is low-impact cardio. This type of cardio puts minimal stress and pressure on your knees, allowing you to work out while also protecting your knees. 

In this article, we will talk all about low-impact cardio for bad knees, including different types of exercises and cardio options. Keep reading to learn about the different exercises to practice and avoid when you have knee pain. 

Causes of Knee Pain

We regularly put our knees to use on a day-to-day basis. As a result, there are many different potential causes behind your knee pain.

According to John Hopkins Medicine, some of the most common knee problems that could be causing your knee pain include:

  • Sprains or Strains: A sprain or strain of the knee is a relatively common injury that can result from too harsh an impact on your knees or a sudden twist that moves the knee outside of its normal range of motion. Symptoms of sprains and strains include pain, inflammation, swelling, and limited mobility. 
  • Torn Cartilage: Tears to the cartilage in your knee happen when the menisci connective tissue in your knee is damaged. This damage to your knee cartilage often coincides with a sprain or strain and can include symptoms such as joint pain, swelling, and a clicking or grinding sensation. 
  • Tendonitis: Tendonitis is the inflammation of the tendons in your knees, causing pain when you move, swelling, and a grating sensation. This type of knee problem can result from extreme overuse in athletics especially, such as Runner’s Knee or Jumper’s Knee. 
  • Osteoarthritis: Osteoarthritis is the type of arthritis most commonly seen affecting the knees. If you have osteoarthritis, your knee cartilage slowly wears away, which can cause joint pain and swelling, as well as a much more limited range of motion. 

However, your knees can also feel sore or painful due to lack of use or a lack of flexibility. 

When To Consult With A Healthcare Provider Or Specialist About Knee Pain

In general, any time you feel pain in your knees and are unsure of the cause, it is a good idea to seek out guidance from a healthcare provider or specialist.

Certain scenarios require immediate attention, including:

  • Sharp Pain: The sensation of sharp pain can be a major cause of concern compared to more dull pain. If you are experiencing sharp pain, there is a higher likelihood of injury or an underlying medical condition that you need to have checked out.
  • Inability to Move: When knee pain goes unchecked and untreated for long periods, it can result in a moderate to severe inability to move. If this occurs, seek out a professional, such as a chiropractor, to help identify why your mobility has not returned. 
  • Dislocations: Knee dislocations occur when the kneecap is shifted out of place, often caused by an injury or sudden impact. Dislocations can take several weeks to heal and often will require surgery to prevent future dislocations. 

Getting Adequate Cardio with Bad Knees

Cardio is an important part of maintaining a healthy lifestyle. It can help to ensure your cardiovascular health, boost your endurance levels.

The American Heart Association recommends getting at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity every week, as well as at least 2 days of moderate-intensity strength training to protect your muscles and joints from future injury.  

Of course, getting this amount of cardio can be difficult when dealing with painful or swollen knees. As such, it is important to consider the different ways in which you can get your weekly dose of cardio without putting too much strain on your knees and knee joints. 

Is Daily Cardio Bad for Your Knees and Body? 

Daily cardio is not inherently bad for your body or knees — like all things, it depends on moderation. 

If you consider the fact that you should be getting around 150 minutes of cardio per week, you can divide this up into 30-minute sessions spread out across 5 days. This gives you a full 2 days off to allow your body and knees to recover.

However, so long as you are not overdoing it, daily low-impact cardio can be a great way to rehabilitate your knees after an injury. Plus, it can also help to reduce your stress levels and improve your overall bodily health as well.  

How Many Daily Steps to Aim for with Bad Knees

If you have ever looked up how many steps it takes to stay in shape, you have likely seen the number 10,000 floating around.

Yet, according to a 2014 NPR report, 10,000 steps might not be the ideal goal to aim for — especially if you are dealing with bad knees. Instead, you should aim to walk roughly 6,000 steps per day or roughly one hour of walking per day. 

The NPR report further states: 

People who walked 6,000 steps a day on average were less likely to have problems standing, walking and climbing stairs two years later, the researchers found.”

Best Cardio Exercises for Bad Knees 

Aside from daily walking, there are several other options for cardio that are incredibly low-impact on your knees. This low-impact cardio can include: 

Swimming for Bad Knees

When you swim, being submerged in water exposes you to water buoyancy. This buoyancy is what makes you feel lighter, almost like you are floating, and can help support your body.

In turn, this support for your body weight takes tremendous pressure and weight off of your knees, which can reduce pain and stiffness in the knees over time. Swimming is even often referred to as a “zero-impact” exercise for bad knees, as you can put no pressure on your knees at all if you so choose. 

However, you should generally avoid breaststroke while swimming, as this stroke puts the most pressure on the knees of any swimming stroke. Instead, opt for strokes such as the front crawl, backstroke, or butterfly. 

Pilates for Bad Knees 

Pilates is a well-known, low-impact form of exercise that focuses on improving your body’s alignment and posture, all while also helping to increase your strength. 

As this form of exercise is already regarded as low-impact, it can be an excellent choice for getting your daily activity when dealing with bad knees. Plus, pilates incorporates a wide variety of different moves and difficulty levels so you can customize each session with movements that work best for your body. 

According to Reform Studios — an Australian-based pilates studio — some of the best pilates moves for reducing knee pain include:

  • Clams
  • Inner thigh circles
  • Straight leg raises
  • Shoulder bridges

It is important to remember during pilates to not push your knees too far — as soon as you begin feeling pain, it’s probably time to stop for the day. 

Cycling for Bad Knees

Cycling is a great way to get your knees moving without placing too much stress or strain on them.

This is thanks to the fact that cycling limits the amount of impact on your weight-bearing joints, which include not just your knees but also your hips and feet. However, since cycling still involves a low-impact movement of the knees, it can also help to increase mobility and reduce stiffness. 

If you are completely new to cycling, it may take some time to get used to the exercise and build up your endurance, so don’t feel discouraged if you can’t immediately complete 150 minutes every single week.

Start by mixing in cycling with your other low-impact cardio activities and then increase how often you cycle from there based on how your body and knees feel. 

Best Cardio Machine for Bad Knees

Along with standard exercises like walking, swimming, and cycling, you can also utilize certain cardio machines that you might find in a gym or fitness center.

If you have never used a cardio machine before, it can be a little intimidating to figure out the different buttons, controls, and workout options the machine presents you with. In this case, don’t feel bad about going up to gym staff and asking how to properly use the equipment. 

Alternatively, if you are purchasing a cardio machine to put in your home, you can look up how-to videos on YouTube to find out how to use your specific model of machine. Additionally, your machine will likely come with an instruction manual as well. 

Here are the two best low-impact cardio machines for bad knees: 

Elliptical for Bad Knees

When used correctly, ellipticals are incredibly low-impact and a great form of exercise for people with bad knees. This makes it a great alternative to more strenuous machines, such as treadmills, that place far more stress on your knees and other weight-bearing joints. 

Moreover, ellipticals work out many different muscle groups in your body. By focusing on more than one area of the body, an elliptical can help you build more muscular strength, which can ultimately help to protect your knees from strain or injury in the future. 

Like with pilates, the key is to be aware of your pain levels and stop the exercise when you begin feeling pain in the knees. Think of it this way — it’s better to be consistent in attempting to exercise rather than pushing yourself too far and resulting in an injury that will require you to stop exercising while you heal. 

Rowing Machine 

A rowing machine is a form of resistance training and has a very low impact on the knees, as you often use rowing machines from a seated position. 

With a rowing machine, you can adjust your form to put less of a bend in your knees, as well as less overall strain on your knees. Of course, proper form when rowing is super important, so make sure your form is correct when using this machine. 

Rowing form can be a little tricky to master at first, so don’t be shy to ask for help or seek out tutorials when needed. 

For proper rowing form, check out this awesome tutorial from Sunny Health Fitness

Home Cardio Workout for Bad Knees 

When it comes to doing cardio at home, one of your best options for protecting your knees is to practice pilates. Luckily, pilates does not require a formal studio or instructor to carry out and there are many great online resources with educational and instructional pilates videos. 

Another great option is to invest in some home gym equipment, such as an elliptical or rowing machine. Having these machines in your home allows you greater convenience, as well as giving you an outlet for exercise that is low-impact on your knees. 

Low Impact Strength Training Exercises for Bad Knees

Strength training can be a crucial part of an exercise regimen when dealing with bad knees, as strengthening the muscles around your knees can help prevent future pain, injury, and immobility. 

According to My Fitness Pal, some of the best low-impact strength training exercises for bad knees include:

  • Standing hip extensions
  • Hip bridge abductions
  • Sliding hamstring curls
  • Kneeling back kicks

You can also practice more traditional weight training exercises, like squats or lunges, but just reduce the range of motion to be less hard on your knees. Taking a wider stance can also help to reduce the pressure or strain on your knees. 

Exercises to Avoid for Bad Knees

The main exercises you want to avoid if you have bad knees are those that put a lot of pressure on your weight-bearing joints, such as:

  • Running
  • Jumping
  • Deep squats
  • Kickboxing
  • Full-arc knee extensions
  • Full-deep lunges 

Final Thoughts

If you have bad knees, this does not mean you have to forego exercise.

There are many low-impact exercise options out there to help you reach your weekly cardio goals and maintain a healthy lifestyle.

Remember to always seek out guidance from a healthcare professional or specialist if you are experiencing pain in your knees from an unknown source.